Reconfiguring common spaces: Q&A with Michael Buono, CEO of New York Renaissance Group and Mulberry Development

IHM editor-in-chief George Sell speaks to Michael Buono, principal and CEO of New York Renaissance Group and Mulberry Development, about the complexities of reworking communal areas, and how short-term considerations will impact future developments and operations.

What can hoteliers do in the short-term to reconfigure communal spaces in order to ensure guests feel safe?

Hoteliers will need to try to limit the social element by adapting to the current situation and guidelines. One way to do this is by taking a page out of the airline model and facilitating independent check-ins with minimal personal interaction. We can reduce the front desk bottleneck by staggering check-in and departure times, eliminate the signing of receipts, and shift to keyless room entry. A hotel can also provide white glove service by having guests access their floor with elevator exclusivity, with luggage delivery to immediately follow.

Another way to limit the social element is to play with the space a bit. Some properties are better positioned for this because of how they were designed (which was out of sheer luck, really), enabling them to mitigate and better serve consumers during the pandemic. For example, at AKA TriBeCa, privacy panels between the lounge seating were a design element we integrated pre-COVID.

And what do you think the long-term implications of the pandemic will be for hotel development and operations?

From physical space to the implementation of the guest experience, I think social distancing requirements and sensitivities will be at the forefront of consideration with current and future hospitality projects. In my New Jersey restaurant, for example, we’re thinking of ways we can seamlessly facilitate our concept in the event of a future shut down. I think the takeaway is how to reimagine a space, without compromise to the brand, that by nature is adaptable and has a greater degree of flexibility. 

Do you see any particular types of hotel/hospitality offers placed better to adapt to the current and short-term situation?

Those that have erred on the side of conservative for underwriting will come out stronger because hotels will always have rooms to sell. It is the properties that have a heavy reliance on secondary income streams, such as F&B and events, that are more vulnerable to a shakeup like we just encountered.

What effect will the pandemic have on hotel F&B provision?

In the short-term, it’s been an incredible unforeseen shock. Until now, there has been a very traditional way of doing business. Many properties operate multiple F&B venues with success directly correlated to high occupancy and foot traffic that packs the spaces with as many tables as possible. We are now seeing locations having to operate at 50 percent maximum capacity. As an industry, we are challenged to offer solutions that create the same financial outcome. 

Now is a great time to think outside the box and bridge the gap. Perhaps it is with an elevated in-room dining experience that far exceeds traditional room service, or using ancillary space in a unique way.  For example, there is a great French restaurant near my home that is built on acres of rolling hills. Rather than overlooking the picturesque scenery, they have moved tables outside, creating intimate vignettes for patrons to enjoy. 

How important will multi-use and flexible spaces be in future developments?

As we have seen over the past few months, flexibility in the configuration and use of space is more important now than ever before.

Michael Buono is the principal and CEO of New York Renaissance Group and Mulberry Development. Combining a career in finance with more than 10 years in real estate development, his portfolio spans across the luxury hospitality, retail, commercial, residential and community infrastructure sectors.

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